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Does Air Pollution increase COVID-19 Cases

Researchers from the University of Birmingham and Université de Berne conducted a research study in the Netherlands that suggests a correlation between the number of COVID-19 cases and the level of air pollution within the country. Studies suggest exposure to pollutants like nitrogen dioxide (NO2), sulfur dioxide (SO2), and PM2.5 particulate matter reduces the immune response and causes ill-functioning of the lungs. On the other hand, the COVID-19 targets the respiratory tract which causes respiratory illness.

This study suggests that poor air quality can leave people at greater risk of contracting the virus. The peculiar case in the Netherlands provides evidence of this hypothesis. The first case of COVID-19 occurred in late February and the country identified 50,000 cases by June end. The national spread of COVID-19 cases was found to be highest in the south-east region which is distinctive as these hotspots are relatively rural regions. Observational studies suggest a few important reasons that can explain this. These areas hold a carnival in late February and early March, that attracts thousands of people to street parties and parades, which could be one reason for the spread of COVID-19 there. But the pattern of cases suggests one more important factor. The south-eastern provinces of the Netherlands have intensive livestock which produces a large number of ammonia particles. These particles form fine particulate matter forming air pollutants. It was observed that the concentration of these particles is highest in the south-eastern region.

Analyzing the data collected from 355 Dutch Municipalities suggests an increase in 1 microgram of fine particulate matter per cubic meter resulted in an increase in 15 COVID-19 cases, 4 hospital admissions, and 3 deaths. Later studies capture the evidence of the relationship between the rise in pollution and COVID-19 that exists even after controlling other contributing factors like carnival, age, income, population density, etc. However, the study is far from conclusive for measuring causality between air pollution and COVID-19 cases since the majority of the hotspots in the Netherlands were in the rural region. Furthermore, there is limited data on the variability of pollution levels and COVID-19 cases within the rural region to eliminate the influence of other significant factors like age and health conditions.

Intern, Amit Mondal


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